Bullied? Here’s what it does to you, for life

Physical bullying at school, as depicted in th...
Physical bullying at school, as depicted in the film Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A new study finds that being bullied can affect its victims for life. From The New York Times:

The new study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, is the most comprehensive effort to date to establish the long-term consequences of childhood bullying, experts said.

“It documents the elevated risk across a wide range of mental health outcomes and over a long period of time,” said Catherine Bradshaw, an expert on bullying and a deputy director of the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence at Johns Hopkins University, which was not involved in the study.

“The experience of bullying in childhood can have profound effects on mental health in adulthood, particularly among youths involved in bullying as both a perpetrator and a victim,” she added.

The study followed 1,420 subjects from Western North Carolina who were assessed four to six times between the ages of 9 and 16. Researchers asked both the children and their primary caregivers if they had been bullied or had bullied others in the three months before each assessment. Participants were divided into four groups: bullies, victims, bullies who also were victims, and children who were not exposed to bullying at all.

Participants were assessed again in young adulthood — at 19, 21 and between 24 and 26 — using structured diagnostic interviews.

Researchers found that victims of bullying in childhood were 4.3 times more likely to have an anxiety disorder as adults, compared to those with no history of bullying or being bullied.

I read this story, which my husband chose to highlight for me, because I was badly bullied for more than two years when I was a high school student in Toronto. I arrived halfway through Grade 10, into a school where everyone had attended the same local schools since kindergarten. I was pimply, socially awkward and had been attending single-sex schools and camps since fourth grade. Boys were an alien species.

Worse than acne, I had confidence, the kind that often is deeply nurtured by single-sex environments, where every teacher and student leader is female. Deferring to male authority? Why would I do that?

And so a small gang of boys made sure to teach me a lesson. They called me Doglin, barked at me down the echoing hallways, even brought a dog biscuit and laid it on my desk. I walked home every day alone, in tears, often getting into bed with all my clothes on to cry and sleep and recover before it all started again the next day.

Hell. School was hell.

English: Bullying on IRFE in March 5, 2007, th...
English: Bullying on IRFE in March 5, 2007, the first class day. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I eventually managed to turn it around, snagging a cute boyfriend, starting a school newspaper and — score! — was even named Prom Queen. It taught me that a shitty situation can, sometimes, be transformed.

But there are days I feel like there’s still a target on my back. I’ve experienced much bullying since then, mostly in work settings where casual cruelty is considered normal. I also come from a family of people with explosive, nasty tempers — being the recipient of verbal abuse will set me back for days, even weeks.

I know why people bully. I get it. I don’t care.

And far too many of those who see it choose to turn a bind eye: “Suck it up. Man up! Kids will be kids.”

My husband, who was small and slight as a boy, was also tormented by bullies. We both know what this does to you, then and later. There is no excuse for verbal abuse or physical harassment — we all refuse to tolerate physical assault and know it’s against the law.

Here’s my essay about it that ran in USA Today. And here’s a recent helpful book on the subject.

This 7:37 animated video is moving, powerful and made me want to cry.

He gets it.

Have you been bullied?

How has it affected you?

39 thoughts on “Bullied? Here’s what it does to you, for life

  1. I grew up with a bully of the worst kind. What I learned from that is that when dealing with a bully it is best to conceal all indications of fear or upset and to accept one’s powerlessness against a bully instead of looking for ways to appease them or overpower them yourself. I really don’t know if that was a good lesson or not. I do wonder about that. But it is how I dealt with childhood bullies and it is how I find myself dealing with bullies as an adult when they crop up. It is not a good response over the long haul.

  2. Ah, bullying. I’ll have to write my own post on this someday.
    What happened to me was, I was bullied throughout third grade and for part of 4th grade. It affected me horribly, making it hard to trust people even when they were good friends, and some of the things they did to me followed me for years. When people would tell me to get over it, I would say, “Did you get bullied? Then shut up because you have no idea what you’re talking about!” It’s even made its way into my writing, often showing the POV of kids who were bullied and horribly affected by it.
    There’s a plus side though: recently I went on Facebook and found the kid I considered to be the worst bully of all. I messaged him and told him I forgave him for all the crap he put me through. He told me that he was sorry for much of what he’d done in the past, and he asked if we could move on from it. I said yes.
    Bullying’s horrible, but things can get better. Look at me; I write on my experiences, and I found peace nearly eleven years later. It’s done me good.

    1. Oh…so sorry to hear this.

      People who have never suffered it have NO idea how horrible it is and what damage it does to one’s self-confidence. But the flip side is that it toughened me up early and I have no fear of anyone professionally, which is very useful in a business jam-packed with rejection.

      Glad you were able to find/make peace.

      1. I was really lucky to be smart and have other skills, like drawing and sports. So even if the boys hated me, I didn’t think much of them either — and took our school to the quarter-finals of a quiz show. I would not let them totally destroy me. And the minute I got to university — filled with really smart guys who were not intimidated — I had boyfriends galore. 🙂

  3. Mildly for one year, just because I was small and a girl, the only girl in my setting. After a particularly bad incident I involved teachers and to their credit they cracked down hard and after that I was left alone.

    My youngest brother was always a gentle, good kid growing up but very shy and deferential in late middle/early high school in Britain he started being bullied badly and physically by another student but he was afraid that he’d get in trouble if he fought back. Once my dad found out that was the problem and assured him that he would always have my parents support as long as he was standing up for himself or others and never the aggressor – Buddy had his first and only fight. One bop in the nose and the kid never bothered him again and Buddy was transformed overnight into a confident, but still kind kid. He’s never been picked on since.

    1. It’s essential to fight back — HARD — and it’s tougher for girls as we’re socialized not to fight physically. I often wondered what might have happened if I had. I did whack one of them on the back of the head, with my Grade 12 (very thick) math textbook, in class, as he would not SHUT up even then.

      The teacher just suggested I sit elsewhere. Bless him.

  4. CRGardenJoe

    You know, I was also bullied from time to time, but had a distinct advantage–I reached my adult size somewhere during 7th grade, and even though I was one of the youngest members of every class due to my August birthday, I was not one of the smaller or weaker members. Still, I was painfully shy, and subjected to harassment of one sort or another now and then. However, I’m interested in the other side of the equation–are there times I was the bully? My knee-jerk reaction (no) is probably not entirely accurate. I did have a wicked and sarcastic sense of humor at times, and I’m sure some of the physical harassment I suffered resulted from me embarrassing one of the “in” kids in class. And are bullies also scarred–learning the wrong lessons–from the bully experience? All in all, I’d say the damage done by the harasser is almost always much worse than the damage the bully suffers from any blowback or delayed regret–but still, few of us escape childhood or teen years without some painful memories. Your post prompted the uncomfortable feeling in me that I sometimes gave as much as I got in the bullying department … so bravo for a thought-provoking topic!

    1. Thanks for such a long and thoughtful comment. Good to hear from you again!

      It does raise an interesting question. I know I’m fully capable of bullying behavior as well, but (funny thing) almost never in return to the creep doing it to me at the time. I suspect there is a lot of repressed hurt/rage in the bullied that (naturally enough) plays out later, even if not directed back at the original target. It is so deeply hurtful and the power imbalance so large.

      I was bullied verbally by several colleagues at the Daily News, only seven years ago, including a photo editor, male, who bellowed at me in the newsroom, clearly trying to scare and intimidate me. When I stayed calm, he went to my boss and dropped a dime. I went to my boss who told me (!): “Don’t sweat it. The guy threw a radio at me once.”

      Yes, the nation’s sixth-largest daily newspaper. A model of civil behavior.

  5. jumeirajames

    I harbour constant fantasies of finding my tormentors and killing them.
    It probably wouldn’t take much of a trigger to turn it into reality.

    I doubt if I’m alone in this.

    1. That’s a dark thought. But it is probably not unusual, I agree. Being bullied is a terrifying, humiliating and scarring experience. I’m sorry you faced it — and a little shocked (why?) — that so many readers here know it firsthand.

      1. jumeirajames

        I suspect that bloggers are more cerebral than most and were probably bullied at school – I learned really fast to pretend I was dumb at school.

        But hating someone means that you keep them alive in your mind, you nurture the hate. You can’t forget them.

        Being bullied last a lifetime – and most bullies would just love to hear that.

  6. It’s so sad that bullying is a reality. I have a friend that has grown up experiencing a lot of bullying. It has impacted him a lot in his confidence and his perspective on life…

    1. It’s only a reality so long as others don’t step in to help fight it. One of the greatest effects it had on me, and likely others, is it left me with little respect for authority figures — who knew this was my daily nightmare but didn’t do a thing to stop it or help me.

  7. Did you watch the video to Shane Koyczan’s other poem, “Instructions for a Bad Day” (Shane Koyczan Pink Shirt Day Student Collaboration)? I think this piece reflects the strength and peace I found after an intense year of introspection on my own experiences of bullying.

    I find my own experience overlapping with insights in the post (a family background that is comparable) and many of the comments. I’ve also had to deal with repetitions of bullying from adults. These situations are always uncomfortable, because of the memories they trigger. If you don’t mind me hijacking your comment space, I have a story for blogger jumeirajames. I hope this helps.

    I was in process of bringing my own hurt and anger under emotional perspective when very unexpectedly, after 25 years and several community moves later, I came face-to-face with my childhood tormentor.

    I was at a fitness class I take at a local gym, where most of the people in the class are women recovering from injury, stress, or childbirth (none of us are buff athletes), and some compassion is required for everyone’s situation and limitations.

    At first, I didn’t recognize my former bully, nor did I like her very much when encountering her again. She was rude and snickered at others behind their backs, smirking with her friend at how some of the women had difficulty. In short, she hadn’t changed any, but it was the hideous way she loudly smacked her chewing gum that triggered my recognition of her.

    I immediately turned and faced her, taking into account who she was and how she was behaving at that moment, and I couldn’t keep my feelings of deep dislike from my face. I wanted to say something, to confront her with her behaviour, or even scream at her. I thought of winding up and punching her hard in the face, eventhough I knew I wouldn’t do it, if only to avoid the legal consequences of such behaviour.

    Instead, I began with a small gesture of confrontation, my unfliching gaze, and that was all it took to change everything. The woman flushed a deep red, paled, and immediately became overly chatty and sugary-nice. I knew right away that she now recognized me, too. The dynamic between us shifted so quickly, and I said not a word.

    My former bully never came back to that class. I saw her one other time at that gym, and she tried very hard to engage me in friendly discussion, even calling to me by using a childhood nick-name that I discarded before finishing high school. I nodded an acknowledgement but walked away.

    I see her every once in a while now. She is always appeasing, stepping up to help when my daughter and I were carrying a soccer net back to its place off-field, or waving if we pass each other on the road. I’m never rude, but I don’t engage. If she had been kinder to the other women in the gym class I may have responded with less disinterest, perhaps given her some opportunity to set aside her own emotional baggage.

    Now, it hardly seems worth the time I spent uncomfortably remembering her middle school antics. Of course, I had to undergo a great deal of introspection to no longer care, and I needed an adult’s perspective to set my insights in order and recover a sense of calm.

    After the anger was gone, I remembered something important: after going through what I did, other classmates talked to me about their own deep-down hurts. They wanted a friend to listen, and I guess they trusted that I would know how they felt. We didn’t have a very good school to support us, so we kids came together for each other the best we could (as limited as that was at times).

    I also dumbed-down to survive the bully, but I learned to set aside the fear when others came to me for help for assignements (I’m not completely over it yet…). I realize now that there was a much bigger story behind all of the bullying, one filled with compassion and strength that we ‘survivors’ shared. I had forgotten this until I had dealt with the hurt, and that horrible disappointment I felt in the adults’ failures to keep us safe.

    Take care. Great post.

    1. It’s quite extraordinary how much we have all been touched by this!

      Thanks for such a long and helpful comment/story. (I have not seen the other video.)

      Being bullied within your own family (which is likely pretty common) sure sets you up like a bowling pin for other such interactions. You can’t fight back physically. You can’t (probably) leave. It teaches a nasty way to deny your feelings and stay passive/angry.

      And what a great lesson — not only can adults be cruel, others won’t help even if they witness it.

      And being bullied at work? Disaster. Very few of us can afford to just walk out. I did, once, even single, and back to freelance. The boss was insane and had colleagues on anti-depressants.

      1. Yes, the situation did grow from family of origin issues, just as you describe. I think those of us who walked that path know the general outline of each other’s stories… it’s always empowering to find strong voices among us.

        Your story about the insane boss may lend a glimpse into the reason why so many people are self-employed, freelancing, or contract employees. Most of my social group falls into this category, sharing a similar back story as yours. Hmmm… I wonder if this could be another book? Look at the sizzle you’ve generated!

      2. I think this has been well-covered as a book…

        But I know for sure there are people like me who have been treated like crap at work who are not willing to go through that again. Journalism is filled with really toxic management, sad to say.

  8. I’m glad you wrote about this – my short response to your Ambassador post was too brief when you described the woman who ego-played you. There are some people who feel empowered when they belittle others or bully them. This is a shameful way to get energy. My adult response is to realize this, stick them on my Jackass list, and ignore them. Enemies, and reflecting back on your interactions with them, yield great insights.

    When I was a little, I was the only latin, catholic girl in a school that was anything but. One day before Religion class, a boy stood next to his friend and shouted, “Hey Spic – we don’t want you or your kind here.”

    I was pissed. I went to class and before it started, I read him the riot act. He was speechless. Only later did I realize that it was the friend of the boy, another little blond kid, not the real bully. Haha – to me two blond boys looked alike. I hope they realized that “they” can also all look alike too. I realized that I should pay better attention to who is who, so I don’t blame the innocent.

    Later on, I went to an all-girls school too. There is something very empowering to be around your own gender!

    1. We were lucky — I’ve heard a lot about “mean girls” and how they can bully. At least in an all-girl environment, I never felt constrained from fighting back. But it really rarely happened there. Maybe (?) because we were actually valued as girls, not seen as second-class boys.

      1. I agree. There were petty problems, but not like what you see on the news nowadays. There it was expected that we would do something with our lives other than become wives. I wouldn’t trade that experience ever!

      2. I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today — for better or worse! — without the tremendous self-confidence my single-sex education and camp gave me. I never feared male authority, although it would have helped my career if I had! 🙂

  9. I also went to the kind of school where everyone knew everyone from kindergarten through to OAC, and I was one of their favourite targets, especially in my early years. I have some really horrible memories of being beaten up, ridiculed and humiliated, but I think the worst memory I have of my bullies was from my grade 4 class. Our teacher, in an attempt to stop the bullying sat us all down and tried to reason with us. She told us that we didn’t really understand the full effect of what we were doing, that people who are bullied as children live with it forever. I remember sitting quietly, feeling monetarily vindicated when the class burst out laughing and said “if you can’t handle it, if you let it ruin your life then it’s your own fault.” A sentiment I still hear repeated in the comments section of most major newspapers.

    My poor teacher tried once more to make us understand the seriousness of bullying. She said that we all had to respect and accept each other, she then provided examples of things that could be “wrong” with someone. To be fair she gave 3 or 4 examples, but the last one she gave was so obviously me that every single one of those hateful beasts shouted out my name and turned and looked at me. That’s really the moment I learned that even when educators have the best intentions of helping, they can only make it worse. It was such an isolating moment, particularly as the teacher had never mentioned to me privately that there was anything wrong with me, and also because what she was pointing out was a skin discolouration, not a lack of basic hygiene as she was implying.

    Anyhow, I spent most of the rest of my school years on my own, and even now I tend to over think my interactions with coworkers and supervisors. I really wish that woman hadn’t tried to wade in where she didn’t know what she was doing.

    1. Talk about good intentions ruined…

      So sorry to hear you went through all this. And I know it definitely affects you in later life.

      “the class burst out laughing and said “if you can’t handle it, if you let it ruin your life then it’s your own fault.” A sentiment I still hear repeated in the comments section of most major newspapers.”

      I see this also, and find it obscene. If this were examples of people being punched in the face (which bullying is, emotionally), there would be charges of assault, arrests and possibly even prosecution, prison, fines and sentences. i.e. very real and public consequences of choosing to inflict cruelty. But victims are often dismissed, told “it’s nothing.” Really? Have you been the victim? If not, you have NO idea — as Rami pointed out earlier.

  10. Dorli

    Thank you for this post. I went through it a number of times – mainly as the new girl (at first) – and suffered a lot. For some reason I didn’t have the confidence to really fight back. This may explain why I’m not keen on seeing these people again. Some say it was the age of the animal etc., but I think that repeated cruelty is a sign of character, not a passing phase. Also, the offenses were insidious and subtle, usually administered (surprise!) by girls.

    The good news, I suppose, is immense understanding and strategizing with regards to my daughter. I hate to see her suffer, but I am probably cut out for the job after all of my trials. I am trying very hard to help her become more resilient e.g. karate, not just feel the wounds as I still do. Jerks…

    1. The biggest problem is absorbing the toxicity — not laughing it off, preferably in the faces of the little shits who think they can hurt you.

      I was lucky to have the protection of loving family, dear friends, smarts and artistic and intellectual and athletic ability. i.e. I have pimples? Big deal! You don’t like me? Lots of other people do. I think as long as your daughter has lots of strong support and other sources of self-esteem she will be in better shape against this BS.

  11. Bullying is such a hideous, pervasive problem, has been for generations. Nothing pisses me off more than a response of “boys will be boys,” or “that’s just what girls do.” Um, no, that’s what happens when the adults reinforce and encourage the behaviors by not addressing or correcting them.
    Now, with cyberbullying, it’s that much worse. Cruel posts, pictures, etc, are there forever, and not “limited” to the victim’s memories.

    1. I also say “sociopaths will be sociopaths” — but, funny thing, we arrest, prosecute and, when lucky, convict them. Just because a perp is “only a kid” they’re still a little shit behaving cruelly and with impunity. Adults who let this continue are creeps, at best.

  12. As a teacher, it’s been tough to see the effects of bullying. I had one student, an incredibly shy and talented (academically) kid, who is already severely damaged by bullying in elementary school. For instance, my Creative Writing class collaborated with the local elementary school to write and illustrate picture books. He wouldn’t participate. He started crying, visible tensing up with anxiety after I described the project to the class.

  13. So I was blogging about music just yesterday which turned into a post partially about being bullied in middle school and here I run across this. Yes. Absolutely, yes. I will have a target somewhere on my person for life. It’s sometimes huge and sometimes very small and hard to hit but it’s there. And my experience was bad enough but nothing compared to what many other kids have lived through.

    We found out last year that my son had been cruelly and methodically bullied by a neighborhood kid on the school bus for 2 years. He never said a word to us and we didn’t recognize the signs. He did, however, tell his school principal, who did nothing of note. Seems that zero-tolerance for bullying at his school meant lots of assemblies and posters but not too much for individual kids in peril. It breaks my heart. What he went through was so much worse than what I did and I know how I feel now, and I’m 51. What is his adulthood going to be like?

    We have gotten help both for him and for us as a family. I can only hope this will mitigate the future pain.

    And there’s a special place in hell for both the kid who did this to my kid AND the adult who knew and didn’t stop it.


    1. I am so sorry to hear about your son!

      It’s very tough to know when to tell adults — and when you figure they won’t do much anyway. I’m sure he’ll be fine as an adult, but keeping an eye on him is wise, of course. The “good” thing about having been bullied is that you recognize it right away when it happens in later life and you know you’ve already survived it once…

      Being bullied is crappy, but we do survive and we do can go on to tremendous confidence later. My husband and I both did, thank heaven.

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